Denali and America’s Long History of Using (or Not Using) Indian Names

In restoring the Athabaskan name to the country’s highest mountain, President Obama is among those who have wrestled with the issue

Mount Denali, formerly Mount McKinley
Obama’s move to rename the U.S.'s highest peak was supported by Native and non-Native Alaskans alike. Peter Buscaino, Photo Contest Archives

For American Indians, place names always tell something about the location, they aim to express the essence of the place, or its dominating characteristic or idea. As Europeans settled on the continent and early pioneers explored, they often gave places new names commemorating the Founding Fathers and other important Americans. This led to the predominance of cities, towns and counties called Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Lincoln. And many Americans live in towns named Johnstown, Carterville and Martinsburg, named for prominent local citizens. Thus in 1896 a New Hampshire prospector, William Dickey, looking for gold in the Alaska territory, named the country’s highest mountain after his favorite politician—William McKinley, a presidential candidate who supported the gold standard. 

Indians have viewed such commemorative names as inappropriate: humans are too small, too fleeting and insignificant to have places named for them. The land is eternal; it owns us, we do not own it. In changing the name of Mt. McKinley back to its Athabaskan name Denali (meaning “The High One”), President Obama takes his place among a pantheon of many mainstream Americans who have championed, for better or worse, Indian place names. 

While most Americans are unaware of the Indian origins of names like Massachusetts (Algonquin meaning “Great Hill”), Connecticut (Algonquin meaning “Long River”), and Chicago (Miami—a nation indigenous to the Great Lakes, not the Florida peninsula—for “Wild Garlic”), there has always been an on-going romantic fascination with all things Indian.

Not long after the Indian removal period of the early to mid-19th century on the East coast, the American landscape and the American Indian became subjects of a flourishing literary genre; James Fenimore Cooper’s "Last of the Mohicans" and Longfellow’s "Song of Hiawatha" are two notable examples. Both did much to stir emotions in their readers, and "Hiawatha" in particular romanticized place names.

Poets further pushed Indian place names into the realm of the romantic. An enduring remnant of this era in American literature is Lydia Sigourney’s 1834 poem “Indian Names,” which depicts the somber, dying and departing Indian, with the sympathetic stanza: “But their name is on your waters,/Ye may not wash them out.” Walt Whitman waxed about “the strange charm of aboriginal names” in his 1904 An American Primer:

“All aboriginal names sound good. I was asking for something savage and luxuriant, and behold, here are the aboriginal names. I see how they are being preserved. They are honest words,—they give the true length, breadth, depth. They all fit. Mississippi!—the word winds with chutes—it rolls a stream three thousand miles long. Ohio, Connecticut, Ottawa, Monongahela, all fit.”

View from Denali
View from Denali, the Indian name meaning "The High One." George Kashouh, Photo Contest Archives

Washington Irving also recommended restoring Indian place names as “infinitely superior to the trite, poverty-stricken names which had been given by the settlers.”

They would have the merit of originality, and of belonging to the country; and they would remain as reliques of the native lords of the soil, when every other vestige had disappeared. . . .A beautiful pastoral stream, for instance, which winds for many a mile through one of the loveliest little valleys in the state, has long been known by the common-place name of the “Saw-mill River.” In the old Indian grants, it is designated as the Neperan. Another, a perfectly wizard stream, which winds through the wildest recesses of Sleepy Hollow, bears the hum-drum name of Mill Creek: in the Indian grants, it sustains the euphonious title of the Pocantico.

As Irving contends, Indian names had the additional appeal of being seemingly pleasing to the ear, but they were often more fabricated than real—at least within the English-speaking tradition. Today’s pronunciations devolved from mangling Indian names into English speech. Noah Webster, father of American dictionaries, argued for this practice:

Nor ought the harsh guttural sounds of the natives be retained. . . . Where popular practice has softened and abridged words of this kind the change has been made in conformity with the genius of our own language, which is accommodated to a civilized people. . . . The true pronunciation of the name of a place, is that which prevails in and near the place.

Not only do many Indian place names today sound a little like the native terms from which they were derived, but some apparent Indian place names are not actually Indian at all, having been coined by Anglo-Americans. In 1840, ethnographer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft mixed words and syllables from Native American, Arabian and Latin languages to make up Native American-sounding words to name some of counties in Michigan.

Mount Denali, formerly Mount McKinley
Denali was given its former name of Mt. McKinley by a gold prospector from New Hampshire. Dan DiMaggio, Photo Contest Archives

The story of naming places in the newly created United States after 1776 is one of forging a new identity. And yet, ironically, that identity is inextricably linked to Indians. No better example than the Boston Tea Party—the catalytic moment in which white Americans began molding a national identity—in which Bostonians employed Indian-ness as a rejection of European consciousness. The icon of the Indian conveyed a revolutionary message and was used to represent the colonial opposition to British rule.

Early Puritan settlers largely ignored Indian names, preferring to appropriate the names of Old England or culled from the Old Testament, though Indian names were retained for smaller villages and many topographic features. In the late-17th century Indian names were used in land transactions to assure mutual understanding, but later English surveys largely ignored the Indian terms.

There can be no doubt that affixing new names to expansion territories is inextricably linked with nation building. British names went out of fashion after the American Revolution. And among other naming trends was a return to the Indian place names as a means by which to deeply link the American nation to the American continent. State names came to be derived from Indian names for rivers (Colonists had not renamed rivers, instead appropriating the old Indian names for practical use.) The result is 26 of the 50 states have “Indian” names.

As American expansion galloped westward across the continent, the adoption of Indian place names grew ever more distilled. While Spanish names were easily adopted, Indian names were largely either translated or abandoned. It seems fair to suggest that where relations were more hostile, as for example in California, Indian names were lost. It is difficult to determine how many authentic Indian place names still exist, whether in translated or corrupted forms, or otherwise. French explorers tended to retain the Indian names, except where they were too difficult to remember or pronounce, in which case they were translated into French. Indian names in the Louisiana Territory were translated first into French and then further translated into English.   

In the latter part of the 1800s, with Indians being simultaneously relocated onto reservations and targeted by government policies aimed at assimilation, nostalgia for things Indian began to grow, particularly in the East where Indians had all but disappeared from view.

By the early 1900s, the growing summer camp industry was adopting Indian names and themes, as were the Boy Scouts and the Campfire Girls. Interest in real Indians, however, remained low. Rather, it was the noble-savage Indian of the past that stirred the soul of the dominant society.

Mount Denali, formerly Mount McKinley
Indians view commemorative names such as Mt. McKinley as inappropriate: humans are too small, too fleeting and insignificant to have places named for them. David Jurgensen, Photo Contest Archives

Given the ways in which American Indian place names have been trampled by colonization over the past few centuries, it should not be surprising that the process of restoring traditional names is fraught.

Obama’s move was supported by Native and non-Native Alaskans alike. But the issue of pronunciation rears its ugly head again, as in attempts to rename Squaw Creek in Oregon. One suggestion was like “ixwutxp,” meaning “blackberry” in the Wasco language, or words with a guttural “tla” sound that does not exist in English, spelled using the symbol “ł.” Each attempt is an act of sovereignty on the part of the tribal peoples involved, and there are success stories of working with the non-Native communities to come to agreement on such changes.

The romantic Indian of yore may never go away from American culture. But in the 21st century, the American search for identity has a postmodern instability that includes an increasing recognition that Indians are alive and well and often want their land back. Scholarship on Indians that does not involve Indians is now problematic. The use of Indians as sports mascots is being replaced. Most importantly, Indians themselves are going through old records and using GIS to remap lost place names. A new conversation on Indian place names is taking place, one that may see another resurgence of native toponymy.

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